Darien High senior studies dwarf planet's rotation
Published 10:39 am, Sunday, October 5, 2014
When Yasi Owainati was younger, she thought she wanted to be a journalist or involved in the language arts in some fashion, but in the back of her mind she was always drawn to the stars.
Owainati has changed course to tackle the hard sciences, and now the 17-year-old Darien High School senior will be considered a second author on a paper published by Dr. David Rabinowitz, an astrophysics professor at Yale University, because of a research project she worked on this summer.
Owainati has been enrolled in the independent research class along with more than a dozen other Darien students. The goal, she said, is to make contact with a potential mentor at a university and conduct their own independent research.
Owainati's cousin, who received her doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University, has had a significant influence in her life.
When it came time to consider what she wanted her research focus to be, Owaitnati was looking at planets outside the Milky Way solar system, but realized she needed to find a more practical focus that would allow her to conduct research in a laboratory.
So she refocused on the solar system.
"To start, we thought we were going to be studying this asteroid," Owainati said. "Then (Rabinowitz's) research steered away and I steered with him."
The two focused on the dwarf planet Eris.
Eris' known history dates to 1930, when Pluto was discovered and dubbed the ninth planet of the solar system. However, Pluto has very different properties than all the other planets in orbit around the sun, which sparked questions about whether it could be considered a planet, Owainati said.
Then, in 2005, Eris was discovered outside of Neptune's orbit. That discovery prompted a re-evaluation of what it means to be a planet, Owainati said.
Scientists got to work studying the dwarf planet, including clarification of its rotation period. The results were not definitive.
Owainati's work with Rabinowitz focused on determining Eris' rotation period. The two used data that had been accumulated over a four-year period and analyzed the light reflections off Eris. As a planet rotates, light reflects off the surface at different intensities and wavelengths.
"If you can measure that, you can get a pattern," Owainati said.
Owainati's job was to reduce and categorize the data to establish a pattern, she said. At first, she received a lot of guidance from Rabinowitz.
"As I got further into it, I put my own input in," Owainati said. "I considered which stars I thought would be helpful and got rid of data points that wouldn't be helpful or would skew the data."
Owainati's research was unique compared to the other students' research, which primarily focused on biology or medical research.
Physics "isn't a field a lot of girls get into," Owainati said. "I really like math and the application of all of it."
One of the physics classes Owainati is enrolled in this year is equivalent to a second semester of a college-level physics class. She is the only female student in the class of seven.
Owainati plans to continue studying science -- specifically, engineering -- in college.
She found her experience over the summer to be beneficial, including the independence that comes with taking the train to New Haven every morning and taking the shuttle bus to the lab and more. But what helped was seeing some of her classmates every day doing the same thing.
"The coolest thing was seeing young kids get into something complicated," Owainati said.
Along with Owainati, 11 juniors and 10 seniors conducted independent research during the summer on topics ranging from canine cognition and marine biology to cancer research and the pathology of bones.
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